So the big get bigger, and the small lose out - is that a problem?
It is if you're a developer, because it means you have fewer and fewer potential publishers to pitch to. Ten years ago, you had a couple of dozen plausible places to take a game. Today, you're lucky if you have six.
And when you pitch them - those increasing budgets breed conservatism. Ten million dollars is a lot of money to risk. The publishers are averse to risking it on anything they don't view as a sure thing - or as close as they can come to one, in this uncertain world.
That's why you get sequel after sequel. That's why any crap media license gets a game (Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?). The promotional spend by the movie studio is viewed as a way of generating interest in the game without additional cost to the game publisher.
The publishers would like all games to be like sports games. With sports games, all you have to do is improve the graphics incrementally and throw in the new player stats - and the little drones will go out and buy the new version every year. They're basically buying the same game over and over, but the players are wearing different jerseys and have slightly different behind-the-scenes data.
Publishers would love all games to work the same way - and they're trying to make it happen. That's why they look for franchises - not for good games.
The publishers (other than maybe EA) aren't immune to cost pressures, of course; they look for ways to save money. Development in lower-cost places like Eastern Europe and Asia is on the rise, particularly for lower-budget titles and games for handhelds. Pressures on developer margins are also intense; it's very hard to negotiate a developer royalty over 15% today. And there's increasing use of middleware - which has the problem that all games start to look the same, because they share the same engine.
And everything has to be a brand.
I was at the Games & Mobile Conference (a small one, in New York) two years ago, when Edmond Sanctis, then COO of Acclaim, said something I could not believe he'd said in public (and that made me want to throttle the living daylights out of him, of course). He said, "There's no point in publishing a game unless there's a brand attached to it."
Do you buy games for the brand? Or the gameplay?
Of course, maybe there's a reason Acclaim is dead.
Another quote that made me sit up and take notice was from Tom Frisina, VP and General Manager at EA - he runs their external developer program - at GDC last year. He said, "We are always looking for something new and innovative."
I'd like to believe that - but of course EA's product mix belies it. Tom is one of the good guys, but in essence what he is really saying is that they want checkbox innovation - a little something to differentiate your RTS from every other RTS on the market. They still want an RTS, though - God forbid you should do something really innovative, like try to offer a whole new gameplay experience.
It Sucks to be a Developer
The implications for developers are even more dire. You will not sell a publisher on a title unless the marketing weasels know how to pitch it to the retail channel. If it fits into an existing, established game category - an RTS, an FPS, an RPG, action adventure, driving, sports - then they know how to sell it. But if you're doing something novel - forget it.
Does anyone seriously think anyone other than Will Wright could have gotten EA to publish a game like The Sims? And actually, EA tried to kill The Sims many times before it was finally released. From what I've heard (and this is definitely hearsay), Bing Gordon's comment at the meeting where publishing was approved was: "Well, it'll only sell a hundred thousand copies, but it'll get Will off our backs."